Participation in arts and culture that is rooted in community can catalyze transformative social change.
Our work at ACTA facilitates the engagement of artists and organizers with deeply rooted traditional arts processes and values as a way of informing local social justice efforts. The practice of community-centered art helps build sustainable opportunities for co-creation, engagement, and change.
What does this look like on the ground?
Local Power: Activating Cultural Assets
“This is where I began to value myself as a human being. In our own country, people don’t know much about us because we are poor. We are hardly ever heard. But after hearing what was said and sung today, I learned something. That our culture and our country is beautiful. And everyone that was here tonight said it with such pride, and now I too say it with pride.” -Caridad Vasquez, Street Vendor, Boyle Heights
Every neighborhood has its own powerful cultural practices, histories, and leaders. An asset-based approach to community development informs ACTA’s process in locales from Boyle Heights to the Eastern Coachella Valley.
Local culture-bearers convene community members within a framework bounded by cultural ways of knowing—lifting up local or ancestral knowledge and practices as a source of strength, resilience and creativity to counter the forces of structural racism which manifest in the vast disparities in health, education, jobs, and individual freedom.
We engage in participatory cultural asset mapping methods to make visible and honor the people, places, events, and groups that hold value and foster spaces of belonging—an essential prerequisite for social change and work towards racial equity.
Voices for Change: Collective Songwriting in Boyle Heights
“Collective songwriting really brings the community in to do the work of music. Having part in that process gives them a sense of ownership to the ideas, to the discussions that are taking place while they are creating music. It shows that a community can theorize for themselves, and they can imagine and articulate it. And maybe not in the boardroom ways everybody thinks we need to hear it, but in the ways in which they do it. The ways they feel comfortable. Through music. And that’s how organizers need to think about community.” -Martha Gonzalez, Chicana Artivist, Professor at Scripps College
The East L.A. community of Boyle Heights is a thriving hub for Chicano art with a long and significant history of activism. Located just east of the L.A. River, Boyle Heights is home to one of the largest Latino populations in the US.
ACTA has been working in Boyle Heights since 2011 through Building Healthy Communities (BHC), a 10-year statewide initiative of The California Endowment. It focuses on building power locally by funding non-profit organizations in 14 communities across the state that have been devastated by health inequities. The Endowment has invested in those communities to facilitate collaboration toward policy change around three different areas: schools, neighborhoods, and preventive health. In the case of Boyle Heights, where gentrification has been changing/threatening the neighborhood, a fourth area was added: anti-displacement.
Another engagement and social change methodology contributed by local traditional artists, including Quetzal Flores and Martha Gonzalez, is collective songwriting. A communal practice with strong roots in Chicano activism, collective songwriting workshops bring community members together to openly discuss local issues that affect their lives and channel their voices into music with meaning. Activism around policies like reduced sentencing, deferred action (which would allow children who immigrated to the US without documents to stay in the country), and restorative justice practices that open dialogue inside schools take center stage through the production of art. Artists and participants share a reciprocal space of storytelling and creativity, mobilizing toward a shared goal.
Weaving Worlds: Embroidery and Dialogue in the Eastern Coachella Valley
“There are a lot of un-met needs here, but they are like muffled voices. Because we go back to the fact that we come from another country and many are undocumented. So the fact that we are here talking and sharing the changes that are taking place of which they can be a part of, I notice that they are more empowered to say, ‘I want changes to be made. My needs are important. I want to be heard.’” -Sandra Ramirez, Schools Action Team of Eastern Coachella Valley
A center of agricultural production for the state of California, the Eastern Coachella Valley is home to a number of farm workers and their families. More than half of the area’s population is Latino, some of whom are undocumented. While money, media attention, and public interest are invested in the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, the issues around healthcare, education, lack of safe drinking water, and structural racism in the Eastern Coachella Valley remain underrepresented.
ACTA initiated work in the area in 2011, applying funds from the California Endowment to support community development through the traditional arts as part of Building Healthy Communities – Eastern Coachella Valley. In the example of the Women’s Tejidos Purépecha Group of North Shore, ACTA organized a regular meeting of women from the community around the practice of embroidery from the indigenous Purépecha people of Michoacán, Mexico, who have settled in the farm worker communities of Mecca and North Shore. In the process of gathering together to learn the new and culturally relevant skill of embroidery at the home of master artist Natividad González Morales, these women had the opportunity to meet one another, break bread, and discuss the problems they face in their daily lives. Advocates from the Building Healthy Communities’ Schools Action Team of Eastern Coachella Valley and the cultural empowerment organization Raices Cultura joined the meetings to learn about local priorities and provide resources for action.
The practice of embroidery created a safe, communal space to give voice to the issues and questions that had been unspoken for many women.
Change, empowerment, and growth happens
in these communal spaces.
Making a Difference: Traditional Arts and Systems Change
“When I think about art and the impact that it has, it’s like the glue that holds everything together and gives it the life and culture and vibrancy for it to be a sustainable movement.” -Omar Torres, Director of Social Responsibility, Weingart East Los Angeles YMCA
Our community development programs at ACTA are built on the idea that, at its core, traditional arts are about honest and open communication, strong relationships, and shared understandings. We invest in frameworks of traditional arts practices that are rooted in depth of participation, mentorship, communal aesthetics, and the acuerdos (agreements) that come with those communal aesthetics. When a community comes together to practice a traditional art form, they are enacting these core values. In Boyle Heights, we continue to deepen and integrate our work led by artist fellows and their mentees who engage with local issues through a range of art forms.
By coupling these embedded social values with active mobilization around issues like restorative justice and displacement, ACTA repositions traditional arts as powerful community assets and forces for change.
Integrating song, reflection, and moments of pause into organizing spaces, the traditional arts offer a possibility for regeneration in a field that can be incredibly taxing on one’s physical and mental health. We use the convivio, or convivial gathering, as a principal method to heal and help people reconnect to each other and the true values behind the work. The cross-cultural act of convival gathering enables a deliberate and intentional coming together, an opportunity to create a reciprocal process of sharing stories and space, of being validated and offering validation.
These are the practices that sustain a grassroots base.
They create paths for everyday activists to live into and practice the changes they want to see in their communities and beyond.
Learn more about our work in Boyle Heights in the Building Healthy Communities Report Approaching Community Health Through Heritage and Culture in Boyle Heights.
ACTA’s work with Building Healthy Communities is supported by
The California Endowment.